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David Bowie

BowieLowThe second week of the new year begins with shocking news that rock’s renaissance man, David Bowie, died of cancer. Mr. Bowie was 69.

Whatever his artistic merits or legacy, and his music and movies are certainly indelible in my life, Mr. Bowie’s body of work is astonishing for a few reasons. Though he reportedly struggled with addiction, mental illness and serious conflicts—he apparently favored the work of his post-addiction Berlin period (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger)—David Bowie was singularly dedicated to making music.

According to biographer David Buckley, after numerous early career failures under his birth name, David Jones, he chose the last name Bowie based upon American frontiersman Jim Bowie, who fought at the Alamo. I don’t know why he chose Bowie but it marks a turning point in his self-made life.

Mr. Bowie admired Elvis Presley among other influential recording artists and he eventually wrote, recorded, performed, starred or worked with everyone from Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury in rock to Bing Crosby and Cher in classics, pop and television. The gaunt David Bowie—who appeared in many movies and created many dramatic roles including his breakout stage persona Ziggy Stardust—starred as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and as Nikolai Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006). He wrote a hit song with John Lennon (“Fame”), sought to adapt George Orwell’s novel 1984 as a musical, worked in pictures with Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak (Just a Gigolo) and released his final album, Blackstar, on his birthday last week.

BowieLodgerI have the impression that David Bowie wasn’t just notching names, genres and lists; his uniquely wide-ranging work was meaningful to David Bowie, not a calculated endeavor for status, awards or impressing or beating others, not that he wasn’t also competitive. He was by most accounts talented, curious and insatiable, not merely a chameleon, “gender-bender”, freak, misfit or strange alien. He wrote songs, conceived of albums, played instruments, selected his projects and produced records. Perhaps most underrated were David Bowie’s versatile vocals. Whether one appreciates his style, theatricality or music, David Bowie worked hard and took pride in his work.

David_Bowie_-_HeroesMr. Bowie’s range is remarkable, which is why his death is being felt throughout the West as his pictures, concerts, movies, TV appearances, albums and songs replay in people’s minds with potent memories: the gently ascendant claim-staking of the non-conformist in “Changes”, the defiant strut of “Rebel, Rebel”, the biting lines in “Fame”, the sharp, wry, liberating “Young Americans”, the brilliant beats, licks and hooks of “Let’s Dance”, peaceful pleading of “Space Oddity”, anger of “Fashion”, despair of “Ashes to Ashes”, lament of “Under Pressure”, frenzy of “Suffragette City” and, in what may be his signature song, in waves of electronic distortion and always in quotation marks, the aching “Heroes”, which David Bowie wrote in Berlin for his 1977 album of the same name.

The droning, looping “Heroes”, brought to life by Mr. Bowie’s lyrics and vocals, is an eerie account of lovers in the German city no longer ruled by Nazis which was instead the center of the 20th century’s concretized symbol of the world’s worst dictatorship in history, the Berlin Wall. This week, Germany rightly recognized (in a statement on Mr. Bowie’s death) that the wall came down due in part to David Bowie’s strong, howling cry for love, youth and idealism; man’s triumph over slavery “just for one day”. Is it possible that a tune written by one outspoken man can topple a wall put up to keep free people out—and enslaved people trapped—and change the world?

David Bowie, may he rest in peace, shows that it is.

Music Review: ’25’ by Adele (Target Exclusive)

Adele Album 25On Adele’s new album, 25, she howls, she bellows, she wails and I think this vocal approach is why Adele has become one of the bestselling recording artists of our time. I think Adele expresses what millions of Brits and Americans feel these days; an aching, yearning lament for lost innocence.

The songs are good, not exceptional, though some stand out. The 14 tunes on Target’s exclusive extended album version (with three bonus songs) are generally well-crafted melodies and expertly delivered, if overproduced, to accentuate Adele’s primary ability to belt out a tune. 25 is a listenable album.

It’s occasionally enjoyable as well. The songs, even as delivered, are unlikely to be remembered through the ages. Soulful Adele, like so many modern pop singers before her—from U2’s Bono and Sinead O’Connor to Alanis Morissette, Sam Smith and James Blunt, sings of longing and lament. She specializes on this album in conveying anxiety, doubt, fear, pain and guilt—which explains why this collection instantaneously broke records. She’s less tortured here than on previous efforts and, as I observed about the first single, “Hello”, there is resilience in her howling, haunting voice. Breaking voice, rising and falling with lush production from top producers, and evoking rhythm and blues, Bruce Hornsby and a range of styles, 25 has an easy, swaying quality to it. Adele co-writes with others, such as Greg Kurstin, recording the album mostly in London and also in New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Prague.

Though I would have preferred to have this album on streaming service through Apple Music, I do recommend Target’s special edition because the three bonus tracks include two of the album’s best songs, the plaintive and looping ballad “Can’t Let Go”—co-written with Linda Perry—and 25‘s most upbeat song, co-written by Adele with Rick Nowels, “Why Do You Love Me”, which has an undeniable, dance floor-friendly hook. This song is also the least melodramatic. Other tracks are a good balance by today’s standards, especially the solemn “Hello”. I suspect that the reason it’s selling four million copies in the first few weeks is that Adele, in voice, tune and mood, captures the tiredness and tension of balancing what one wants with what one wants to guard in the everyday onslaught of today’s darkening world.

In 25, Adele grieves for the loss of innocence while striving to hold on. As she sings in “Can’t Let Go”: “I never lied and I never faded…” Though she sings in past tense, she adds that she won’t let go. Beyond the melodrama of anguish, I think this ability to express perseverance may be what powers her phenomenal success.

Music Review: “Hello” by Adele

Adele Album 25Yesterday, in an act of great injustice, the federal government exonerated a corrupt chief tax collector who perpetrated the singling out of Americans for persecution based on their ideas. Yesterday is also the day Adele released her new single, “Hello”.

The haunting song, written by Adele with Greg Kurstin, masterfully expresses emotions which correspond to what I think are predominant feelings of our times. This lament of one’s past captures what it feels like to want to cry out against what’s gone wrong in the world.

The pared down production, simplicity and restrained power of her voice, which wails about being on the outside, give the melancholy tune an undeniable power. It’s superficially about a former lover, yet the song from Adele’s forthcoming album, 25, is an introspection. It’s as though she’s reflecting upon herself, a sense affirmed by Xavier Dolan’s dramatic, black and white, retro music video co-starring the perfectly cast, boyish Tristan Wilds (watch the video here).

The sparse “Hello” loops a melody in Adele’s vocals featuring whispers of piano, background vocals, electronica, strings, percussion and some chillingly timed bells. The effect is a sense of distance, loss and detachment laced with an eerie foreboding; the lyric suggests that the days are numbered. But this tune, as with In the Lonely Hour by Sam Smith, does not wallow in self-pity, pain and anguish. “Hello”—and this is why I think it reflects modern frustration, troubles and hardship—is a plaintive, wounded howl at the way things are and the way things are going. An undercurrent of struggle and strength in Adele’s soulful voice suggests that the singer has not given up. Musically, vocally and lyrically, there is no hint of defeatism; there is a sense of purge in her pleading acknowledgement of the past. Adele’s vocals do not overpower—she sings more like Whitney Houston than like Jennifer Hudson screaming in Dreamgirls—which serves the tune’s theme. It begins as a greeting and becomes an attempt to admit, fix and right what is wrong.

That “Hello” comes in a week of historic victories for corruption in American government—as one of America’s most alarming income tax scandals goes unchecked and unbalanced and one of the most explicit attacks on free speech, when the government blamed an Islamic terrorist attack on September 11 on a movie, with evidence that the secretary of state (Hillary Clinton) knew it was not caused by a movie but said so anyway, goes unpunished—is, of course, coincidental.

I know that a pop song can mean more than the song. It can reflect and define the times. A song well done captures a mood or sensibility. The youthful weariness of “Hello”, which, like its title, is a greeting girded by benevolence, erupts in a wail at the way things are and the way things are going. “Hello” may entirely endure for its hook, ability and production. It yearns for a past “when we were younger and free” and cries out for better days knowing that “at least I can say that I’ve tried.” In the most basic sense, it’s a song about losing one’s love. In a deeper sense, it could be a song about losing one’s civilization, down to the last lyric that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore—imbued with the sense that it’s the only thing that matters anymore.

Movie Review: New York, New York (1977)

NYNYPosterNew York, New York is director Martin Scorsese’s flawed and haunting story in musically-pegged pictures centering upon two artists. Robert De Niro (Little Fockers, Hugo, Last Vegas) portrays a narcissistic saxophonist who is both wild and talented and totally grating. Liza Minnelli (Cabaret, Arthur) plays a singer. They meet after World War 2 ends as newspaper headlines proclaim victory over the “Japs” and New York City erupts in celebration, tossing swastika-emblazoned flags around in mockery of the vanquished Nazis. This is prelude to the film’s sense of foreboding that postwar elation masks deeper wounds from a world at war.

The 1977 movie, released at the height of Minnelli’s and De Niro’s careers as Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull, The Departed) was rising, is like an overlong, epic poem to the artistic spirit of youth. Minnelli had survived her mother’s maudlin end of life, had a meteoric hit in Cabaret (1972) and De Niro had registered as an up and coming ethnic actor among the new, vulgar Hollywood types—Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino—in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and New York, New York was supposed to be huge.

It’s both easy to see why it bombed and why it might have been a hit.

The United Artists movie is grand, with a score by Cabaret and Chicago composers Kander and Ebb, cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, Mask) and the producer of Oscar’s Best Picture for 1976, Rocky. But it is manic, disjointed and too broad like most Scorsese pictures and the De Niro character, Jimmy Doyle, in particular, is excessive. Jimmy is the prototypical musician, a stand-in for every artist, especially the male artist. He is charming, good-looking, talented and all kinds of bad news waiting to happen. But in an instant from a stair step, Jimmy the hustler sees a beautiful couple dancing under the elevated train and catches a glimpse of the romantic and musical in life. He spots the couple in movement and light and it’s like a work of art in motion. Such a sight could heal whatever wounds he bears. In any case, he wants the life he imagines he sees.

In Francine Evans (Minnelli), he goes after it. She’s initially impervious to his dimpled, gleaming charm, so it’s clear that wide-eyed Francine is different than the other girls he sets for conquest. All Jimmy wants in life, and he tells it to Francine, is music, money and sex, pretty much in that order. Francine concurs, finally, after meeting cute in a nightclub played by an orchestra, then in a taxi cab and, spontaneously, again at an audition where the hothead sax player is prone to pop off. What propels New York, New York is its sharp capture of the dance, tension and conflict of two people—two artistic people—in love. For over two hours, it is enveloping, aching and bittersweet.

Naming the romance falls neatly to Francine, who observes that “one of the nicest things in the world is waking up knowing someone loves you.” Minnelli shines in the role. It’s really her movie.

All of this happens (when the shows aren’t on the road) in New York, amid musical bandstands and set pieces, moods and magnificence in jazz, from Harlem to the recording scene. Everyone is surrounded by paintings, songs and instruments, immersed in the hard work of making art, with writers, musicians and other attendants that make up show business. New York, New York depicts the musician’s madcap life in snowbound marriage proposals, greedy kisses in the rain and the ever competitive drive to perform and connect with bandmates, audience and material. It’s all there and it’s tethered to whether Jimmy and Francine can make and love each other and the life.

A drunken fight ensues and, in the De Niro character’s denouement, the reality strikes a major chord. For Minnelli’s Francine, she sees herself in her eyes for the first time to the strings of jazz guitar. The grand finale plays to Minnelli’s best Kander and Ebb songs including the megahit “New York, New York”, written for this thoughtful, stylish movie, proving what her stage and television audiences already knew about this powerhouse entertainer who refuses to fall down. In Mr. Scorsese’s story-within-a-story-within-a-storybook ending, with Liza playing a moviehouse usherette, the artist integrates with the art, this time in reality. So, while New York, New York presents a false dichotomy between the romantic and the realistic, and it is tedious in stretches, it deals in grand notions and ideals in music and pictures. Much of the movie is striking and seeing Liza Minnelli put on the show toward the end still packs a wallop as big, grand and fabulous as New York City.

Martin Scorsese’s movie about making money while making music and making love is mixed with real power and insight.

Movie Review: Amy

AmyPosterThe story of Amy Winehouse, the “North London Jewish girl” who was a jazz singer before she became a pop star and spun out in a drug-induced death in 2011 at the age of 27, is well told in Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary. A single human life is precious, indeed, and this is what makes Amy so powerful. Whatever the cynics and people who relish with contempt blaming those who destroy themselves, this 2-hour film stands as a testament against letting life go easily, cynically and without examination.

Here, in Winehouse’s own words, with unseen archival footage and unheard tracks, is her short life story. In the telling and showing, Kapadia captures a talented woman of her self-loathing generation who came of age and fame in the digital era when a media feeding frenzy could hasten one’s demise faster than, say, Princess Diana. If you primarily want to blame Elvis, Marilyn, Whitney and others such as Michael Jackson for their own deaths, don’t see Amy. If you want to see how an artist comes undone with help from today’s culture and understand how to intervene, mitigate and stop the selflessness, Amy, whether or not you’re a fan of her music, is as simple and accessible as its title suggests.

The seeds of talent and self-sacrifice were planted in the beginning, and this is documentary, not psychodrama, so definitive answers are not forthcoming. But fellow Brit and Londoner Kapadia, who was a casual fan and lived near Winehouse in the lowest days, is moved by the desire to know what happened. Amy is journalistic, with facts laid bare through research aligned with numerous audio interviews that took him three years to obtain and record.

Clearly, the young child of divorce, who went bad when she was nine years old by her account, was damaged and derailed early in life. She made bad choices. But she was also at the mercy of parents, who both survive her and participate in the film, who did not establish boundaries. Amy goes from her home movies to club footage and recording sessions—from self-made success in Camden to self-made disaster in Belgrade—and, in the pictures and what happens in them, one can see that the petite, big-haired, pierced and painted Winehouse was also sucked into the death spiral by today’s lowest parasites every time she seemed ready to go straight.

Amy is about Amy to the extent that’s possible. Whether showing her as a girl singing “Happy Birthday” and “Moon River” in the opening frames to her jazz lament about a man not acting like a man, her retro hit “Rehab” and later stylings by the guitarist, singer and songwriter, including works with rock, pop and rap acts, the evidence that she could create meaningful music is on full display. Kapadia thankfully offers lyrics and subtitles, too. Intermingled throughout her ascent to stardom is the sleazy lifestyle, which began as a daytime indulgence in marijuana and continued with a lifelong dependence on alcohol, sex and drugs, including those prescribed for her depression and heroin, crack cocaine and nicotine. Add what should be obvious in the form of her eating disorder (bulimia) and Amy is an inked up poison pill. As rapper Mos Def puts it “she was fast with a blue joke, could drink anyone under the table and she sure could roll a smoke. She was a sweetheart.”

In other words, Amy Winehouse was a fast-tracked, foul-mouthed time bomb that everyone from Mos Def (going by another name here) to her father and Tony Bennett kept kicking down the road trying to cash in on her fame, persona and success without accounting for the consequences. The exceptions were chiefly her manager, Nick, whom she fired, her childhood friends Juliette and Lauren, and, tellingly, at one point anyway, Lucian, a Universal Music Group recording industry executive who insisted that she sign a contract to keep clean and sober before booking her on the Grammys (she signed and delivered—both in sobriety and appearance). In and out of bad relationships and a stoner marriage and rehab, becoming a cartoonish joke with her garish cosmetics which became a self-fulfilling imprisonment of self-hate, Amy Winehouse finally dovetails talent and tragedy and goes for a final nosedive, bookended by her hero worship of Tony Bennett, who comes off as somewhat complicit despite his polished efforts. Bennett at least gets the artist right when he describes her as “a true, natural jazz singer.”

That she never really sought to heal herself cannot be escaped. Neither can the fact that she never really had a model, friend or proper intervention for the help an addict needs from those who love the addict when she’s sober. Amy’s life ended on July 23, 2011 with a blood alcohol level 45 times higher than normal. That this intelligent, bright-eyed, British artist called her old friend and flatmate Juliette with pure clarity and said over and over that she was “sorry” days before she died—with her downfall constantly ridiculed by sniveling comics such as George Lopez at the Grammys and Jay Leno—proves only that inside the self-destroyer remained that girl who could sing with soul. Whether any good comes from Amy is up to those who know someone they love who is as artful a dodger as London’s lost singer.

Amy reminded me of the first time I heard “Rehab” in a dive bar in Silver Lake, with its energetic Wall of Sound bursting forth with this fresh, smoky voice that also sang jazz, blues and standards. I wondered then what would become of one who is celebrated with snide parody for living the life she portrayed. Amy brings to mind audiences turning the other cheek to Robin Williams‘ obvious despair, the cacophony of cell phone cameras when Heath Ledger‘s corpse came out on a New York City stretcher, and the endless taunting that people—sadly, intelligent people—do to flawed, damaged but talented celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and even to relatively unblemished artists such as Sam Smith. Amy revisits the short life of Amy Winehouse with honest, candid examination of facts and, through the words, pictures and lives of those she left behind, lets the awful truth speak, sing and be silent for what it is.

That the coarse, young modern female drank herself to death in a culture that now celebrates drunkenness and coarseness among young females may come as no shock. However, Amy, as its title suggests, urges the audience to never submit to coarseness and cynicism after the fact of a horrible, and stoppable, self-made death.